The Pope today thanked the British people for the “warmth of your welcome” as his historic four-day state visit to the UK came to an end.
Pope Benedict XVI has used the visit to apologise for the child sex scandal, meeting with abuse victims and acknowledging how the affair “seriously undermines the moral credibility” of the Church.
In forthright comments, he has attacked what he sees as “aggressive secularism” and the “increasing marginalisation” of religion in society, and railed against the limitations of celebrity, secularism and science.
The Pontiff has attracted huge crowds, addressing more than 50,000 people in Cofton Park in Birmingham today and 80,000 in London’s Hyde Park yesterday, and the trip has been seen by most Catholics as a great success.
Speaking just before leaving the country he said: “Thank you for the warmth of your welcome and for the hospitality that I have enjoyed.
“During my time with you, I have been able to meet representatives of the many communities, cultures, languages and religions that make up British society.
“The very diversity of modern Britain is a challenge to its Government and people, but it also represents a great opportunity to further intercultural and inter-religious dialogue for the enrichment of the entire community.”
Prime Minister David Cameron described the state visit as “incredibly moving” and thanked the Pope for challenging Britain to “sit up and think”.
Mr Cameron drew parallels between the Pope’s teachings and his own vision of a “Big Society”.
But he felt moved to defend the country against accusations of religious ridiculing.
He said people of all faiths or no faith could consider questions of how to live and emphasised that the British people are “deeply, but quietly, compassionate”.
He said: “Your Holiness, on this truly historic first state visit to Britain you have spoken to a nation of six million Catholics but you have been heard by a nation of more than 60 million citizens and by many millions more all around the world.”
He said: “You have really challenged the whole country to sit up and think, and that can only be a good thing.
“Because I believe we can all share in your message of working for the common good and that we all have a social obligation to each other, to our families and our communities.”
And he added: “When you think of our country, think of it as one that not only cherishes faith, but one that is deeply, but quietly, compassionate.
“I see that compassion in the incredible response to the floods in Pakistan.
“I see that compassion in the spirit of community that drives countless good deeds done for friends and for neighbours every day.
“And in my own life, I see this compassion, this generosity, in the many, many kind messages that I have had as I have cradled a new daughter and said goodbye to a wonderful father.”
Earlier, addressing Catholic bishops of England, Scotland and Wales at the Seminary Chapel in Oscott College, Sutton Coldfield, the Pope suggested the Catholic Church in Britain could share the lessons it has learned about child abuse with wider society.
He said: “(A) matter which has received much attention in recent months, and which seriously undermines the moral credibility of Church leaders, is the shameful abuse of children and young people by priests.
“Your growing awareness of the extent of child abuse in society, its devastating effects and the need to provide proper victim support should serve as an incentive to share the lessons you have learned with the wider community.”
Yesterday the Pope expressed his “deep sorrow and shame” after meeting five clerical sex abuse victims in a private meeting in London.
He began today at a special Mass to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, the first beatification he has carried out since he was elected Pope in 2005.
The German-born Pontiff, who was forced to join the Hitler Youth as a 14-year-old schoolboy, took the opportunity to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, saying: “For me as one who lived and suffered through the dark days of the Nazi regime in Germany, it is deeply moving to be here with you on this occasion, and to recall how many of your fellow citizens sacrificed their lives, courageously resisting the forces of that evil ideology.”
One woman feeling ecstatic after the visit was Ese Ijasan, 30, from Manchester, whose 10-month-old daughter Aderonke was picked out from the crowd to be kissed by the Pope.
She said: “She was so excited, I guess the Pope saw the excitement in her.
“It is the biggest thing that has ever happened to me, ever.”
Late last night six men arrested by counter-terrorism police probing a plot to attack the Pope were all released without charge.